I’ve just discovered the poetry of Belfast-born writer John Hewitt, which is a shocking oversight for someone writing a novel based in Belfast during the Troubles. But then his name is somewhat overshadowed by those other dazzling Northern Irish luminaries: Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, CS Lewis and Frank Ormsby. I read the poem below and immediately ordered a copy of his Selected Poems, which I’ve been devouring ever since.
If I could put into so few words my sense of conflicted pride, identity, loyalty, pain and longing for Northern Ireland, they would read like this poem, which was chosen to be read out at the site of the Omagh car bombing on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity in 1998, where thirty-one people were murdered by the Real IRA splinter group, who opposed the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. This poem also came to mind when I read of the decision to prosecute “Soldier F” for the murder of civilians during 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry
Very unusually for the period, my Northern Irish parents were “mixed”, that is, one was Protestant, the other Catholic. My relationship with my Northern Irish heritage and identity, my fellow countrymen and women and how they have affected my family, and the families of most people I know from the region can be read in Hewitt’s appeal to “bear in mind” the dead.
Remembrance, loyalty and justice are words that have been worn out on all sides by the spilling of so much blood, and by a willingness to turn away from deeds committed in a country of incredible natural beauty and otherwise welcoming inhabitants; a time, place and people that are still overlooked and misunderstood by many.
NEITHER AN ELEGY NOR A MANIFESTO
BY JOHN HEWITT (1972)
For the people of my province
and the rest of Ireland
Bear in mind these dead:
I can find no plainer words.
I dare not risk using
that loaded word, Remember,
for your memory is a cruel web
threaded from thorn to thorn across
a hedge of dead bramble, heavy
with pathetic atomies.
I cannot urge or beg you
to pray for anyone or anything,
for prayer in this green island
is tarnished with stale breath,
worn smooth and characterless
as an old flagstone, trafficked
with journeys no longer credible
to lost destinations.
The careful words of my injunction
are unrhetorical, as neutral
and unaligned as any I know:
they propose no more than thoughtful response;
they do not pound with drum-beats
of patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.
So I say only: bear in mind
those men and lads killed in the streets;
but do not differentiate between
those deliberately gunned down
and those caught by unaddressed bullets:
such distinctions are not relevant.
Bear in mind the skipping child hit
by the anonymous ricochet;
the man shot at his own fireside
with his staring family round him;
the elderly woman
making tea for the firemen
when the wall collapsed;
and the garrulous neighbours at the bar
when the bomb exploded near them;
the gesticulating deaf-mute stilled
by the soldier’s rifle in the town square;
and the policeman dismembered
by the booby-trap in the car.
I might have recited a pitiful litany
of the names of all the dead:
but these could effectively be presented
only in small batches,
like a lettered tablet in a village church,
valid while everyone knew everyone,
or longer, where a family name persists.
Accident, misfortune, disease, coincidence
of genetic factors or social circumstance,
may summon courage, resolution, sympathy,
to whatever level one is engaged.
Natural disasters of lava and hurricane,
famine or flood in far countries, will evoke
compassion for the thin-shanked survivors.
Patriotism has to do with keeping
the country in good heart, the community
ordered with justice and mercy;
these will enlist loyalty and courage often,
and sacrifice, sometimes even martyrdom.
Bear these eventualities in mind also;
they will concern you forever:
but, at this moment, bear in mind these dead.
Hi Margaret, I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with John on a number of occasions, most memorable being while he was doing an Arts Council funded reading tour with fellow poet John Montague, headlined as The Planter and the Gael with Hewitt’s poems representing the Planter stock and Montague’s the Gaelic stock. Some of us were invited back to the Antrim Arms Hotel, in Ballycastle of course, where they were staying that night. A magic night of discourse, poetry, music and song that didn’t break up until about 6.00am, and Hewitt was no longer a young man! He is regarded as a Glens Poet, he had a cottage outside Cushendall, where he frequently holidayed and is fondly remembered by those of a certain vintage! Anyway knowing your love of the North Coast and Glens area I am recommending a slim volume of his called “The Day of the Corncrake” if you are ever lucky enough to get your hands on a copy. It was originally published by the Glens of Antrim Historical Society back in the ’70s or maybe even ’60’s. Thank you for posting the above poem, I had not come across it before, but it speaks so eloquently of our recent history. Regards Peter
Hi Peter, thank you for your comment, what a night that must have been! I read about his Glens hideaway, I will have to make a pilgrimage to it during this summer’s trip. Like your man, “Though to keep my brain and body alive I need the honey of the city hive, I also need for nurture of the heart the rowan berries and the painted cart, the bell at noon, the scythesman in the corn, the cross of rushes, and the fiery thorn.” I will definitely search out The Day of the Corncrake, thank you for the recommendation. I read the above poem and thought, well, no point writing my story now! But I’ll persevere, if for no other reason than to celebrate the landscape and its people, and to emulate Mr Hewitt’s elegiac yearnings. M x